Politics, Activism, Culture and Fun in Brisbane, Australia.
How will we take over the world and run it ourselves
instead of having to work for the bosses who own everything?
One thing's for sure - we'll need exciting, powerful,
curious and free people on our side, not the boring pseudo-left

Hard-Headed Practicality at the Brisbane Social Forum's Human Rights Seminar

NOTE: This is comment, not straight reporting. I am trying to faithfully report the ideas and attitudes of each speaker, but I have chosen many terms because they made better reading. Especially please do not assume that any speaker has seen, or approves of, this report, or what I have said about them or their ideas.

The Brisbane Social Forum 2006 was better than last year's, which was also good.

While there are some on-going faults that should be looked at, I heard a lot of people who stood out because they were NOT just there to parrot the same old conservative-left* line. I went to four sessions on Saturday, May 20th. I've already written about the Humphrey McQueen (G) session, so I won't repeat the same points, but I will mention in a yet later post some of the things that didn't make it into the first article.

The Saturday morning session I attended was about human rights. I was skeptical, because I am not going to give my energy to help to pass a law that I think will have little or no effect. But the people who spoke, even the one who had spent a lot of time with the UN human rights process, all seemed to not be fooled by the idea that just passing a new law will solve any real problems.

The first speaker was Kim Pate, from the Canadian Association of Elizabeth Fry Societies, who spoke mainly about the 20th anniversary of equality provisions in the Canadian Human Rights Charter. Many, she said, were not being protected by this law, even though the law says they are protected. She was skeptical of courts - she thought that 'half the time' they are not the place to argue (for a start, lawyers are expensive, and they don't like informed clients) - but still, they are often the only place to get even half a chance at justice for the female prisoners she works for.

And she spoke very tellingly of the reaction from those prisoners when she suggested that court challenges and so on were not the right way to go - THEY insisted that she carry on with her legal work. Obviously the women she works for thinks it's useful.

Pate also spoke about pushing academics to do the sort of research that the powerless need, and about forming links with other organisations for nation-wide campaigns.

Next to speak was Deb Kilroy of Sisters Inside.

She talked about a government report on systematic discrimination against women prisoners in Queensland that her organisation had to push hard for - in fact the Qld Anti-Discrimination Commission's first reaction was to deny that there was any systematic discrimination. The report finally got done (PDF link), but the government has disowned it. Sisters Inside is trying to get female prisoners to lodge formal complaints about their treatment - but the fear of retailiation is a big rock in their way.

Kilroy was keen to see a Human Rights Act passed here in Australia, not because it will end any battles at all, but because it will give people like her one more tool to use when pushing for the rights of female prisoners. She was quite prepared to wait for the right sort of law though. Apparently there is a feeling among many who want a Bill of Rights, that 'if we just pass any law we can even if it is not very good, we can amend it later'. Kilroy disagrees - if the government will not do the right thing now, why would they do it in the future?

The third speaker, Lillian Holt, a vice chancellor's fellow at the University of Melbourne, said much that I don't agree with, and also said many things that made me think that she is very good at shocking people out of old, boring ways of thinking. She is Aboriginal, and my favourite thing that she said was that over 30 years, the 'empty rhetoric' of 'motherhood statements' about self-determination had turned into 'motherfucker' statements.

Holt went on to make the point that the rhetoric of tolerance is not about changing society, it is about getting the victims of discrimination to accept the society that has victimised them. She is also against political correctness - she wants to know if she is dealing with a racist, instead of having to guess. (And she said she may even get on well with the racist, once they get over that hurdle).

Next up was Caroline Lambert of the Women's Rights Action Network of Australia (WRANA).
She spoke about how she had lobbied the UN's human rights officials, and while she is brutally aware of the limitations of the system, still thinks that at least some work needs to be done there. For instance, the Convention on Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) (now there's a catchy name) provides the only legal basis for Australian human rights law entering the 'private' areas of the market and the home.

The CEDAW committee at the UN is looking closely and radically at women's productive and reproductive labour at the moment. Lambert's work in New York was about pushing this further, and especially encouraging the UN to not look just at the written law, but the practical, day-to-day effects of policy. To take an extreme example, a woman's right to vote is meaningless if no girls ever go to school.

A woman who works at a shelter for female victims of violence raised the same point that had been in my head - can words, laws and documents really protect people? Kilroy replied that it was just one more way to get abuse noticed, and solve a few real problems for people.

Pate said that sometimes you have to prove you have exhausted the legal solutions before moving onto direct action - and made the crucial point that people on the ground need to know that someone is fighting for them. She went on to describe the work her group is doing to teach female prisoners to be advocates for other prisoners.

Lambert explained that while she sees the work with the UN as important, the most important thing is building a culture that produces 'rights-claiming individuals', instead of human rights being something that activists 'do' to victims of abuse.

After this discussion, the final programmed speaker, Serina McDuff spoke briefly, but time was running out. I only have brief notes on two comments that she made: She'd like to see an expansive Bill of Rights/Human Rights Act in place now, and that the Government is very good at using Human Rights law to SAY it is doing good things, without actually doing them. That was a pity, because her resume sounds interesting:

"Serina McDuff is currently the Executive Director of the YWCA of Brisbane and is the youngest woman to lead the organisation. Since she began 18 months ago Serina has repositioned the Y in Brisbane to advocate and respond to women's issues...Serina's activism is centred on ensuring women's and young' people's rights are on the agenda for action, and advovcating for systemic change."

Well, time for lunch. The Student Union's pizza cafe was open, so I had a double-garlic, cheese, cheese, cheese, cheese (mozzarella) and cheese (fetta) pizza, washed down with a small bottle of Beez Neez honey beer. Damn, we activists do it tough.

I'm already working on a post about the media workshop after lunch. Keep your feeds open...

*"Conservative-left" = a term I am using to describe those who are thought of as 'radical' by the average person. That is to say, 'Resistance' in Australia, the Socialist Workers Party in the UK, most 'anti-globalists', and so on.

I think these people are conservative because their angry speeches are usually about being 'anti' this or 'anti' that, and they personalise their opposition to the system (They blame 'Howard', 'Bush', or whoever, instead of talking about what the ruling class is doing. They also often talk as the ruling class as a conspiracy (which it is not)). There also appears to be an undying hatred of the USA, which means they fail to understand its motives, and a rejection of modern society.

This sort of thing encourages people to believe that the system cannot be changed at all.

Radical-left thought, the opposite of conservative-left thought, encourages people to study the world as it really is, coolly and clearly, and asks people to think about how they would solve the problems of taking over and then running society. The revolution will be the easy bit - after that we actually have to run things!

Radical-left thought talks about the ruling class as it is, not as some conspiracy that plans attacks on its own cities (Rebuttal of people who think like this about September 11, 2001).

Radical-left thought is proud of this modern world that workers have built with their own hands and skill and power. We are not going to destroy it, we are going to take it over and make it better. And it is now better than it has ever been before.

tags: politics human.rights clearthink kim.pate elizabeth.fry deb.kilroy sisters.inside lillian.holt serina.mcduff catherine.lambert cedaw ywca wrana


Handling the Media for Activists: by Rodney Croome and Gai Lemon

(From last post...) Well, time for lunch. The Student Union's pizza cafe was open, so I had a double-garlic, cheese, cheese, cheese, cheese (mozzarella) and cheese (fetta) pizza, washed down with a small bottle of Beez Neez honey beer. Damn, we activists do it tough.

After lunch it was time for the 'Working with the Media' workshop, led by
Rodney Croome (G) and Gai Lemon. Croome played a leading role in getting the Australian state of Tasmania to change its laws which made homosexual activity a crime. Lemon is a 'professional lesbian' who has been dealing with the media since the late '80's. And between them they gave a workshop crammed with useful facts and tips on dealing with the media.

An early media release that Croome helped to write was a good place to start talking. Back in the '80's his gay law reform group in Tasmania wanted to set up a stall at the Salamanca Markets, but the local council (which controls the markets), refused permission. The plan was to defy them, and Croome spoke of the 'essay' he wrote about his position. He showed it to (now-Senator) Bob Brown, who drew a big blue line right through it, and wrote instead:

Shock Council Ban

Gay Activists to Defy Hobart City Council

Which is good advice. As Croome said, a media release is about grabbing people's attention with ONE idea and writing about it in the way that you want to see it in the media.

Early on in the session came another crucial piece of advice: go into an interview knowing what you want to say, despite any questions the interviewer might ask you. In fact no matter what they do ask you, keep coming back to your point:

So, how about that local sports team? "I hope the Crows win, just as much as I hope the workers will throw off the bosses and build a new society without them".

You usually have to find a human angle if you want to change attitudes with your stories. People usually don't identify with the cause of "gay rights" (for instance), they identify with a person who is being unjustly treated. (Follow those two links and see which one has your blood boiling in the first ten seconds).

When you have people who are willing to talk to the media about how your issue affects their lives, you'll probably have to give them some coaching on how to deflect 'political' questions and keep things at a soft level. Discuss the issue with them, and draw out their own words that will sound good in the media.

Sometimes it can be a good idea to invite people who MIGHT change their mind to see your cause. For instance, Croome talked about when he invited an Anglican [Church of England, Episcopalian] bishop who was wary of same-sex parents to publically visit such a family. The media footage of the bishop playing with the men's children was very valuable indeed.

If you think of appearing on TV as a performance, instead of something that is natural, you will probably do OK. You may be asked to do the same thing four or five times, so the media can get the correct shot. Play along - unless they are actively trying to sabotage you, all they want is for their story to look as professional as it can.

Never look bored or angry while being interviewed, the TV magnifies things like that. Also don't wear too many ornaments, badges, bright objects etc, that will make your picture on TV look 'busy'.

And here is a nice trick if you are being recorded and you say something dumb that you don't want on air: swear right at the end of what you say:

"Well Jane, most same sex parents seem to have a lot of trouble raising childrenF**K!"

Its very difficult - almost impossible - for the media outlet to edit this so it sounds OK to go on air. Sure they can cut out the swear word, but the rest of the sentence won't sound right. So they won't use it. Nice...

And if you suspect a journalist is trying to sabotage you, its OK to not answer questions, to firmly change the topic and talk about something you want to, or to end the interview. And don't trust the journalist who want to be your friend, especially if you are or have been friendly with them. Act as though EVERYTHING is on the record, even if you are 'just chatting'. That 'chat' might turn up in the media the next day.

Remember, "they" are not the big bad media. Well somethimes they are, but we often overestimate their weaknesses. They need stories or they die, and they will publish yours if they are good enough.

For example at last year's BSF, News Ltd (that is, Murdoch (G)) journalist Elizabeth Wynhausen, author of 'Dirt Cheap' (Amazon) spoke, and explained that she was working on articles about human rights abuses in the sex trafficking trade. She was under the impression that the chance to win human rights awards (scroll down to the very bottom of the PDF file) was one of the big reasons that News would let her do these stories. She was prepared to make that compromise to get a story out that she thought was worthwhile.

I really enjoyed this session, as I have had a couple of wins with the media in the past. I have an article about my own media promotion in the pipeline, which will be a step-by-step guide to media releases. One thing I said at the BSF seminar that I will say again in my article is this:

You MUST not just send out media releases and hope the stories will come rolling in. You MUST follow up your release by cold calling the newspapers, radio, and TV, for a start) and asking them point blank if they think your story is newsworthy.

Next planned articles - some more background details from Humphrey McQueen's seminar last week, and a report of a visit of an Israeli peace activist to Brisbane late last year that I did the local media promotion for, which will include full copies of media releases, tips on how to write them, how to cold call the media without fear, and advice on just what size of poster is the best for getting attention on the street.

Keep your feeds open.


Humphrey McQueen says we MUST confront nationalism instead of wishing it away - angers the conservative left

NOTE: This is comment, not straight reporting. The thrust of McQueen's call to arms is, I think, represented fairly, and I am consulting my notes taken at the seminar, but a majority of the details in the paragraphs are my interpretations and feelings about tonight.

Humphrey McQueen attacked conservative-left thought on nationalism tonight at the Brisbane Social Forum.

[Conservative-Left - claiming to be Left while opposing most, if not all, change.]

Three speakers who appeared to have emotional stakes in conservative-left positions spoke passionately in favour of their views, but I judge (and I am biased) that they failed to win the hearts of most of the room.

The campaign against nationalism of many of the grouplets on the left is not aimed at changing minds, it is aimed at affirming moral superiority, McQueen contended.

(Not a direct quote, but from my notes made 4 hours ago)

Humphrey McQueen's seminar this afternoon at the Brisbane Social Forum (University of Queensland Student Union, St Lucia, Brisbane, Australia) was called 'Why Nationalism is Necessary' (its a reworking of a Shelley title about athiesm, he said).

McQueen started off by posing the question of how much nationalism the left needs. He takes for granted that we reject fascism, chauvanism, racism and so on, but what about patriotism? What about nativism? What about their historical roots and the fact that many people feel them?

What about the fact that many problems are specific to local conditions and need local solutions? Saying that some problems have a uniquely Australian solution would be common for at least several decades after a revolution.

McQueen spoke of the book 'Imagined Communities', (Amazon) by Benedict Anderson.

Not because he thinks it is a good book, in fact he thinks its message has been dangerously misconstrued leading to the idea that racism is caused by 'bad ideas' that we can just tell people to stop believing. Racism Solved! (Not).

But because he demands the left starts thinking about this:

What sort of imaginings - what ideas about community, society and humanity - will we have to offer people if we do sweep away the culture that stands now before us?

McQueen also insists that, by refusing to come up with a realistic approach to nationalism, we are ceding valuable ground to the Right. McQueen gave two examples of comments that had been made to him by people who identified as left:

1) "Australian nationalism is filth"

2) An activist used the words 'the maggot of racism' at the time of the Cronulla riots.

McQueen suggested that if an ordinary worker in Australia were to hear these comments, there is a good chance that that worker might think that you were calling her 'filth' or a 'maggot'. McQueens opinion seems to be that this might be unhelpful to us, if we are trying to win the culture war. This contention sparked some debate.

In fact McQueen had already stopped for discussion a couple of times. I had already drawn the fire of one of the conservative left by suggesting that any plan we come up with be just a couple of steps forward of where we are now, to allow for the willingness of people to change. I was accused of being elitist, and thinking that workers could not change (No, I said wouldn't actually. Difference).

An activist from the Socialist Action Group, who up till now I had thought was sensible, weighed in, saying that McQueen's argument was 'crap'. McQueen replied, 'You are the first person who has felt the need to swear', and the conservative who had criticised me said 'its not a swear word, its an ancient Anglo-Saxon word'. McQueen decided not to let pedantry stand in the way of scholarship and calmly explained that in our culture and language the word 'crap' has connotations of insult when applied to one's argument. Then the conservative expressed the view that criticising a female (for it was a female who had used the word 'crap') was sexist. Um...

Fortunately, a young woman with a contrary view and a North American accent spoke up soon saying that she was Australian ('despite my accent') and she would find comments such as 'filth' and 'maggot' offensive. It was clear to me to that this young woman's attitude on nationalism was far more likely to be close to the point of view to the average Australian than the attitudes of the conservatives who had spoken. That makes people like her far more useful than the conservative left.

When it came down to it, in a room of roughly 30 people (who had all paid A$40 to be there), only 3 could be found to strongly, passionately argue against McQueen's point of view. They had the floor for as long as they wanted, and they got to say the same things they always say. And they were heard. No one clapped, no one appeared to actively support them. I don't mean to say that every silent person disagreed with them, but nor were they stirring a great deal of enthusiasm amongst those who had come to listen.

There is no room to be smug. No plans were made. No problems were solved. All McQueen did tonight was demand we begin thinking about the cultural battles of Australia. But his call to arms was clear. Everyone in that room knows what he meant. And I am sure I saw people who want to do more than blame John Howard.

After the seminar broke up I told the young woman with the accent that I liked what she had said. To my surprise she said she was worried that the room disagreed with her (I think she misinterpreted the tense silence as everybody held back). But I told her that I thought the majority of the room would have been either on her side (well I meant or at least prepared to take her ideas seriously and respectfully and not shout her down, but that takes a while to say). I encouraged her to keep talking.

McQueen was not the only person at the Brisbane Social Forum whose views were at least not entirely orthodox. Deb Kilroy of Sisters Inside, Kim Pate from the Canadian Association of Elizabeth Fry Societies, Lillian Holt, a vice chancellor's fellow at the University of Melbourne, Caroline Lambert of WRANA, Rodney Croome (G) and Gai Lemon all stood out as people with enough different and interesting things to say to be well worth the effort. And they were just the speakers. I saw plenty of curious people - some of them still quite conservative in many ways - who can be argued with usefully.

The field can be ours if we take it.

NOTE: Humphrey McQueen (Amazon) is the author af A New Brittania (Amazon) and many other books.

tags: humphrey.mcqueen politics australia clearthink

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